It is a sad commentary on the state of the genre that venturing out to see any romantic comedy these days comes with such a sense of foreboding.
Which perfectly talented stars will be forced to gamely take part in dopey silliness? Which far too familiar plot elements will be recycled yet again? And will anyone have to do an entire scene with a live flapping pigeon attached to her head, as Debra Winger did in 1995’s “Forget Paris?” (I blame that single scene for the fact that it was eight years before she made another studio film.)
This is especially true in January and February, the months when Hollywood – apparently playing to the Valentine’s Day crowd — throws away such cringe-inducing or ham-handed examples as “27 Dresses,” “Bride Wars,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” “New in Town” and “Leap Year.”
The upside: Actresses at least get to do more in these movies than show up for three scenes to prove that the hero is heterosexual, or battle robots and aliens while wearing tight short shorts and high heels.
The problem is that the eventual outcome of these rom-coms is never in doubt. The hero and heroine are going to end up together at the very last minute no matter how many obstacles are thrown in their way.
Which is fine if the movie sparkles, as in such Golden Age classics as “The Awful Truth” and “The Shop Around the Corner,” or more recent entries such as “While You Were Sleeping” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”
In those movies, the performances are so strong and the leads possess such charm, that you’re happy to watch the often antagonistic hero and heroine verbally duel until the inevitable final clinch.
That’s not what happens with “No Strings Attached,” which stars Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. The two first meet at summer camp as awkward teenagers. Now, a decade later, she’s a resident at a hospital and he’s a production assistant on a “High School Musical”-like TV show with ambitions to become a writer.
The twist: She’s the one who’s relationship-phobic. She suggests, and he agrees, that they become friends with benefits, i.e. they’ll have sex together anytime, anywhere, but there’s to be no actual dating or relationship, much less snuggling or spooning.
When it becomes obvious that they’re falling for each other, Portman’s character fights it up until nearly the final scene — and long past a viewer’s patience. The whole final two-thirds of the movie pretty much simply marks time until Portman finally wakes up to the fact that she wants figuratively to smell the coffee over breakfast with Kutcher.
What “Strings” does have going for it is lots of raunchy, punchy one-liners by screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether. Most are unprintable — let’s just give as an example that when two men are found to have had sex with the same woman, they are referred to as “tunnel buddies” — but they at least keep things lively. (For more examples, check out the red band trailer.
Also, the supporting cast is solid. Making an especially strong comic impression is Greta Gerwig (of “Greenberg” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs”) as Portman’s best friend, though she is required in an early scene at a boozy frat party to wear satin boxers with the word “W-H-O-R-E” emblazoned across the backside.
Others include “The Office’s” Mindy Kaling, “Saturday Night Live’s” Abby Elliott, Chris Bridges (better known by his nom de rap, Ludacris), Lake Bell and Kevin Kline, who one presumes was doing a favor for director Ivan Reitman, with whom he previously worked in “Dave.”
Portman, a long way here from her heavy but effective emoting in “Black Swan,” still manages to add a few grace notes, especially in scenes with her mother (Talia Balsam) and sister (Olivia Thirlby). The lightweight Kutcher’s movie career remains a puzzlement.
All that said, the audience at the screening I attended was heavily female, mostly in their twenties, and they loved the film. “That was as good as ‘27 Dresses,’” one gushed to a friend.
High praise, indeed.